Women in leadership: Two personal perspectives on creating an ecosystem for further development and opportunity

By Robert Half on 10 March 2020

According to the Robert Half CEO Tracker, which identified the backgrounds of current CEOs leading companies on the Hang Seng Composite LargeCap Index, only 4% of the CEOs of companies on the Index are women.

The overwhelming prevalence of men in leadership positions exists in spite of in-depth studies which suggest gender diversity on executive teams strongly correlates to profitability and value creation.

Karen Taylor, General Manager APAC at Anaqua and Elaine Lam, Associate Director at Robert Half Hong Kong, share their insights about how women can better position themselves for leadership roles and how organisations can help women grow their careers.

Achieving optimal work-life balance

Stereotypes are still very much present in many people’s way of thinking. Taylor comments, however, that it’s important not to be misguided by existing stereotypes: “There are inaccurate perceptions around how hard it is to manage children and a career, but we need to get the message out there – that it’s perfectly manageable – and high-profile women leaders have been demonstrating this for decades.”

Work-life balance has become a keyword in today’s organisations. Companies are increasingly taking measures to support a healthy work-life balance, including for working mums. Lam states: “I have had the pleasure to work with many female business leaders who have not only reached the top of the corporate ladder, but also have fulfilling personal lives, often with a family. Those women typically serve as role models within their company for their female staff members, setting an example and showing them that combining a thriving career and a family are in fact possible.”

Interestingly, data by the WEF suggests such attitudes and biases which inhibit the progression of women into leadership roles are most likely to be broken down when there are more women in leadership.

You don’t have to look too far to find plenty of commentary about the different skills offered by men and women, but Taylor and Lam agree that different people bring alternative and very valuable skills to leadership positions, and these skills are independent of a person’s gender.

What companies can do to better promote women in leadership

When developing leadership capabilities, it’s important to leverage the help, support and guidance of key decision-makers around you. Mentoring arrangements and sponsorships are said to play an important role in helping women achieve their leadership ambitions.

Lam says: “There are a few ways companies can create an ecosystem in which women can organically develop their leadership capabilities and access more senior opportunities as they progress their careers. While companies could implement mentoring programs where potential future leaders shadow existing leaders, women might also benefit from connecting with other female leaders who can share valuable advice and offer support and guidance when seeking new opportunities”.

Taylor says companies should also enhance and expand their talent management process in order to identify and develop talented future female leaders.

“Many companies, especially in Asia, are putting programs in place to fast track the next generation of leaders to replace the thousands of senior people who will be retiring soon. I think there could be some great lessons we can apply and it’s a great opportunity for women too,” says Taylor.

How to self-manage career progression

Skillset and personal development are crucial in the early stages of a career, but as people advance in seniority, their experiences and ability to both lead teams and become positive catalysts for organisational change often come to the fore. In this context, it’s important to focus on optimising skills that revolve around people management, adaptability and stakeholder management – particularly when it comes to identifying new business opportunities and creating a more diverse, inclusive and supportive workplace environment.

Lam says: “Soft skills are vital for successfully securing a C-suite role, which means aspiring leaders should look for every opportunity to develop these skills and prove them in real-life scenarios. Participating in new projects or willingly taking on new responsibilities could be an effective way for women to show they have sought-after leadership capabilities such as agility, problem-solving, decision-making, empathy and strong communication”.

When it comes to broadening your suite of responsibilities, Taylor also emphasises the importance of having an appropriate title that accurately reflects your role: “It’s important to have a senior enough title to open doors and get you meetings with the right people…A tweak in title can also help you establish authority,” says Taylor.

“If I had to give my younger self some advice, I would say fight for a title because even if you don’t think it’s terribly important, lots of others do.”

“You have to be strategic and observant. Sometimes you have to ask for things you’re not even sure you want. Even if you’re not sure you’re ready, ask anyway. Even if you’re not sure you want P&L, do it anyway. If you are not sure you want a large team of reports, do it anyway. Because without that experience you simply will not reach the C-suite.”

Those interested in landing a C-suite role shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the type of industry and function they gain experience in. As Taylor notes, most CEOs emerge from a strategy, sales or finance background. But it’s also beneficial to observe what works within your organisation and pursue opportunities accordingly.

“A background in finance will continue to be valuable for leaders who need to understand the financial implications of business decisions,” Lam states. “Having a background in finance enables professionals to develop an understanding of the financial environment that in turn can provide unique business insights. Business leaders with strong financial capabilities are highly valued as they can interpret the financial ramifications of business decisions, overlaying a practical, financial perspective with strategic insight borne of business management experience.”

“Promoting the importance of STEM qualifications among women could also help position them as highly sought-after future leaders. Advanced STEM skills are likely to help tomorrow’s leaders analyse data, apply knowledge to complex practical problems and use logical reasoning as they navigate rapidly changing technology and economic uncertainty.”

Finally, communicating your ambitions is a crucial first step in making headway towards a future leadership position. “I looked at who was getting promoted and every single one of them had been very vocal about their career ambitions until they finally got what they wanted,” says Taylor.

“Put your hand up, speak out and have very direct and honest conversations with your boss, their boss and as many influencers you can get your hands on to show them you want it. And get them to help you get ready. Don’t just ask what you need to do; ask them what they will do to help you get there.”

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